Jack Palance: The Badest of the Bad
As stated before when I was a kid we loved villains. Always identified with them in the movies. Villains were the bad asses of society and we found them exciting.
Now ninety nine percent of the villains were men, but there were a few female villains as well. The only problem is that generally they were led to their villainous ways by some guy and usually had a change of heart close to the end by doing something noble just before she died (of a bullet in the stomach)in the hero’s arms saying: “I’m sorry Steve, I just didn’t ahh..ahh.” We didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. We wanted you to be bad all the way through. So that even with your last dying breath you were telling a lie. Then we would leave the theatre saying: “Did you see that? Even while he (she) was dying. Wow!” That was the highest compliment we could give, an astonished “Wow”.
Another thing about villains in those days (the 1950s) is that they looked different. They all had scars and mustaches. Some even had beards, but most had mustaches. Not a romantic, sexy mustache like Clark Gable. No theirs was a Hitler like kind of thing. Or it was thin and wormlike. But the best thing about those villains is that they all had bad skin. Their cheek was pock-marked and cratered so that when the light hit it in certain way you knew that was a face only a mother could love. So that even at the start of the film before his character was established, when he is with the towns people pretending to be a man of distinction, you knew he was up to shit. Why? Because of his bad skin.
Then of course, there was the scar. He would tell everyone that he got it in the war fighting for the North (or the South). But later it would be revealed that he got it from trying to force his sexual attentions on some innocent woman who attempted to defend her virtue by scratching him. He then would get mad and kill her and run off to another town or state. But to his bad luck the dead woman would turn out to be the sister, wife or sometimes the mother of the hero who would then dedicate his life to finding out who did this horrible deed. And God help him if the hero was somebody big and rough like John Wayne. He would punch him, kick him and stomp him before putting him out of his misery with three, maybe four or even five bullets.
Still in spite of that kind of treatment we all wanted to be villains. And our favorite villain in the 1950s was Jack Palance (1919-2006). He was tall and moved with panther like grace. He spoke in a halting kind of whisper, breaking up his sentences in unexpected ways. He was ugly in a kind of way that fascinated us. He seemed to have bad skin not just on his face but all over his body as well. And to top it off he always seemed to be in a bad mood. The kind of guy you would say “Good morning” to and apologize for it right after just in case he heard it wrong. Jack was so bad that he would sometimes beat up the members of his own gang. Some guy would ask a question or challenge his authority and Jack would deal on him with his fists. We loved that. Loved it a lot.
The movie that set him up as a God for us was Shane ((1952). In it he played Wilson the gunfighter the bad guys brought in from out of town. Wilson rode in slow, got off his horse slow, took his drink slow, went back outside slow, taunted the feisty Southerner slow, pulled on his black glove slow and shot the man face down in the mud slow. An incredible piece of movie villainy that has yet to be matched in the annals of great motion picture moments.
Later Wilson meets Shane and shows him respect. Then when their big confrontation came Shane shoots him down between the barrels. They did that because it was a movie and they had to give it a moral. The bad guy can never win. But we kids knew better. We knew that if it was real life Wilson would’ve totally messed up Shane and the conversation would be over. Either Shane would’ve been dead or he would be drinking clear soup through a straw for the rest of his life.
Later on Jack became the hero in his movies and lost us completely. But when he was bad the man had no peer. See Panic in the Streets (1950) for example. The man had no peer at all. He won an Academy Award later in his career for City Slickers (1991) but I always felt he should’ve gotten it for Shane.
My favorite Palance moment comes in the film where he played Attila the Hun (Sign of the Pagan -1954) where without warning he grabs a headstrong princess, pulls her up against him and kisses her roughly on the mouth then pushes her away. When she says: “How dare you!” He tells her in that wonderful delivery of his: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers, now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a … barbarian.”
I have been waiting all my life for an opportunity like that to present itself to me. Some haughty member of a royal family will be standing there, I’ll pull her to me, kiss her hard and say those immortal words: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers. Now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a… barbarian.” It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hopeful.
The badass Jack Palance was my role model. He still is.
When we were kids going to the movies we always identified with the villains. Always favored them. They seemed to live lives that were carefree and wild. They could do anything they liked right up to about ten or five minutes before the end of the film. Then they would be caught, beat up, put in prison or killed. But before that they always had one hell of a time being bad.
Heroes were dull to us. Heroes had morals; heroes had to live by the rules. Villains didn’t give a damn about the rules. As far as they were concerned rules could kiss their behinds. Rules were for ordinary people like grocers, postmen, bankers and clerks. Boring people like the people we knew. People like our mothers and fathers, teachers and neighbors. Next to them villains led exciting and thrilling lives. We wanted those kinds of lives and didn’t mind if we had to pay for it at the end. Because after all the end would only last for about ten minutes or so.
One of our favorites was Dan Duryea (1907-1968). He was a quintessential villain in two of my favorite genres, westerns and film noir. He had a narrow face and sharp cunning eyes. Film noir femme fatales always lied and the heroes (saps that they were) always believed them. But Duryea never did. He always knew they were lying through their teeth and would tell them so. More than talk he would sometimes slap them around to let them know they weren’t fooling him. Then he would kiss them and they would more than like it, they would love him for it. That was our kind of villain.
Now there are two kinds of bad guys as far as we were concerned. The ones who did bad things and try to get away with it and the ones who took great glee from doing those bad things. They were doing it not just for the money or power but because they just liked being bad. Because they were the bad asses and anybody who didn’t like it would have to lump it. Duryea was one of them. He would giggle and cackle and taunt and tease when he was doing his bad stuff and seemed to virtually get an orgasm when he was killing some innocent, unarmed dupe. Then when the end came, this was the best part for us, he would lie and cry and snivel and beg the hero to save him. And if the hero knew what he was about he would grab his collar, slap him around for a bit, punch him and kick his ass all over the room while we screamed “Beat him! Beat him!” And Duryea could beg and cower and snivel with the best of them and we loved him for it.
The truth is in real life he was a wonderful actor and a very nice man who was born in White Plains, New York, went to Cornell University and distinguished himself in Broadway classics like Dead End and The Little Foxes before moving to Hollywood and establishing himself as a wonderfully entertaining bad guy in films like Winchester ’73(1950) and my absolute favorite Too Late for Tears (1949). For his villainy on screen he achieved a cult status of sorts which says that we weren’t the only one attracted to his terrific brand of badness mixed with humor.
As an actor he was of course capable of playing other parts and did them well. But it was for his villainy he will always be remembered and revered by those of us who love movies and especially film noir.
Character actors are another of cinemas unheralded heroes. Some acquire a small degree of fame or notoriety. But for the most part they go unrecognized and unremembered for the excellent work they’ve done and all the pleasure they’ve given us over the years.
From time to time we will be highlighting some of these staples of the cinema whom we got to know nearly as well as we know the long time neighbor next door. Yet we don’t remember them until we see them in the next movie playing their next great role.
Murray Hamilton (1924-1986
Everyone knew Murray but no one knew him at all. Say the name Murray Hamilton and you get a blank stare. Say that he played the mayor who doesn’t want to close the beaches in Jaws (1975) or Anne Bancroft’s husband Mr. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) and you get : “Oh him. Sure I know who he is.”
In his career Murray made more than 300 movies, acted in over 1000 TV shows and appeared in 16 Broadway shows. In each he played a prominent featured role. Some other significant films include: Anatomy of a Murder (1959) The Hustler (1961), and Brubaker (1980). He liked to quote one of his favorite directors Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke – 1969)who always started every film he directed by saying to the cast and crew that he viewed life as a Department store and that the people who made films were working in the toy department. Murray subscribed to that view of things. He was a genuine Hollywood outsider because in spite of the high number of films he appeared in he never lived in California and was never part of the so called film colony. His best friends were Walter Matthau, Michael Parks, David Soul, Jason Robards, Peter O’Toole and George C. Scott. His favorite director was Steven Spielberg for whom he acted in Jaws (1975) and in 1941 (1979).
Murray studied to be a graphic artist and got into acting by accident. He worked in the play Mister Roberts (1948) and later replaced David Wayne in the role of Ensign Pulver. As an actor Murray said that he always tried to first be “true to the part as it is written”, be “interesting in the role” and “serve the director to the best of my ability”.
He was born in North Carolina and died there 62 years later of cancer. Murray was one of the best of the unheralded character actors and it would be a shame if his contributions to the films in which he appeared were forgotten. He’s not forgotten here. Thank you, Murray, you were wonderful.
Montgomery Clift (1920-1966)
He was a movie star in the full sense of the phrase. A special presence that graced the screen all too briefly then vanished from the scene never to be seen again.
I’m not talking about the chronological length of his career in films which lasted eighteen years from 1948 to 1966. I’m talking about the period from 1948 to 1953 when he starred in three landmark films Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), giving award caliber performances in each. But what distinguishes them even more is his unusual presence. Quiet, unobtrusive, hesitant, and almost apologetic yet at the same time beautiful and poetic.
In the pages of the cinema press of the day his presence was called “troubled” and “sensitive”. Both words seem apt but I think the way his character is described in A Place in the Sun is more accurate. The young woman who loves him says:
“You look unusual. You keep pretty much to yourself, don’t you? … Blue…exclusive. You seem so strange, so deep, so far away, as though you’re holding something back.”
And he was. What that was we’ll never know.
Clift during this period was mysterious, moody, fascinating and magnetic. You couldn’t keep your eyes off him. Then came the auto accident that destroyed his face and apparently destroyed something else as well. His angelic inner persona that shined so brightly through the roles he played. He was to give other good performances, even other award caliber performances but he was never the same. His career and his life after the accident has been called “the longest suicide in Hollywood” and accurately so. But fortunately for us we have those early years and that special presence forever captured on film where he will remain immortal as long as motion pictures exists.
Other films of his early career include:
The Search (1948), The Heiress (1949), The Big Lift (1950) I Confess (1951) and Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953). I highly recommend them all.